Wednesday, June 24, 2009

“Diving for Pearls,” Fran Mackenzie

I know that there’s a place where the Caribbean and the Atlantic meet. I have often tried to find it, looking for that place where the calm of the Caribbean joins with the violence of the Atlantic. It has eluded me, but I have kept searching for it.
I guess it’s like that in people too. You see the calm, never seeing the violent churning that lies beneath. Opposites. Yin and Yang.

I believe that God gives everyone choices. He gives us rules to live by, the Commandments, and as we are His people, we ultimately fuck it up.

My family’s company ran several sugar cane farms throughout the islands that were used to produce some of the finest rum around. Liquid gold. Though I worked out of the North American office in Toronto, I spent some time at our office in Barbados. I would fly down to Bridgetown several times a year, meet with the plantation managers, set up meetings with clients, so on and so forth, but always leaving time to get a little down time sunning and swimming in the crystal clear waters.

On a recent trip down I stayed at the Hilton in Christchurch. It’s a beautiful hotel and the proximity to St Lawrence’s Gap, where there were great restaurants close by, is a bonus.
Luckily for me, this time, I finished up my meetings and inspections quicker than I expected. I was on my way down to the pool level when I passed Sandra, a pleasant young black woman, who manned the activities desk.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Going very well, Miss Naughton. How long you staying this time?” Sandra called out to me in the singsong Bajan lilt. I had gotten to know Sandra over the last couple of years when she booked the occasional activity for me.

“Maybe three or four days. You know, I need to soak up that sun before I head back.” I smiled.

Sandra nodded and said, “ We have something new. Pearl diving.”

My interest was piqued. I nodded and pursed my lips. “Sounds tempting. When is it?”
Sandra looked at her schedule. “ Bus leaves in an hour.”

I gave it a half second of thought. “Okay, book me on. I’ll get some stuff from upstairs.”
I saw Sandra pick up the phone as I ran back to my room. Forty-five minutes later, the bus was chugging out past St Michaels Parish to a marina. Looking out onto the marina, I could see the moored boats were bobbing in the gentle wake created by other boats heading out to the vast ocean.

I climbed onto the boat with the help of a deckhand, who with his sun bleached blonde hair and deep tan certainly looked the part of a man who enjoyed working the boats and the young tourist girls, and not necessarily in that order. His nametag read Brock. Of course it was. Weren’t all sun bleached and tanned bimbobs named Brock?

Brock extended his hand, flashed me a thousand watt smile and pulled me aboard. The Brocks of this world knew, the bigger the smile, the bigger the tip.

I had scrambled to find a seat, finally sitting next to the only guy who wasn’t part of a couple. I stored my stuff under the seat, sat back, and Brock started handing out some rum punches. It seemed that every boat tour on the island was a booze cruise of some sort. He handed me mine, again with the thousand watt smile as he moved on down the line.

“Boy, they want you tanked before you jump in the water. Do they take out a policy on their guests?” The man who was my seat partner asked with a grin.

Looking at him, I could tell he had a good physique, even though he still had his shirt on. I couldn’t see his eyes, not with his sunglasses on, but I thought he was handsome. I always had a hard time meeting guys. When your last name is Naughton, and there’s rum that goes with it, nine times out of ten, it’s not me that becomes their primary interest.

“Maybe they’ll just sail away after they drop us off. How’s your backstroke?” I grinned back.

He stuck out his hand. “Tim Burgess.”

“Allie Naughton, nice to meet you.” I shook his hand.

“ Like the rum?” he asked.

“Exactly like the rum. Have you ever had it before?” I smiled.

“It’s in my bar at home. Great stuff. We don’t buy anything else. Love it. So you own that company?” Tim asked, removing his sunglasses as if to get a better look at me.

“No, my family owns it, I just work there. I come down to the islands to check on things every once in a while, and then I take advantage of the sun. One of the perks of my job.” I turned to get a better look at him. Handsome, maybe a little older than me, but not by much.

“What brings you down here?” I asked. Translation, are you single?

“Family vacation. From Toronto. You know, we came down on points. The wife hates boats, and I get bored sitting around the pool. She prefers to read at the pool and keep an eye on the kids.”

Shot down in flames. I should have known. Married, not available. Brock the bimbob was looking pretty good about now.

Still, we chatted until they dropped anchor. Then Brock gave us fresh snorkel tubes, masks and fins. He passed out gloves and knives. We all put on our gear, making sure that we spit in our masks to avoid the fogging. We were about a dozen divers, including crew, and we jumped in.

When I hit the clear water, I could see schools of tropical fish, some venturing closer than others, unafraid of the divers floundering around. I’m a strong swimmer, and I turned and kicked my way down to the oyster clusters that looked to be suspended on racks. There were thousands of them. I grabbed one, cut it from its prison and kicked my way back to the surface.
I climbed back onto the back end of the boat, and waited as Bimbob Brock used a shucking knife to open the mollusks that people were holding out to him.

I saw Tim was ahead of me, and Brock cracked open his oyster. Like everyone else, there was a tiny seed pearl there, not really anything special.

“Too bad,” Brock tried to look disappointed, but he wasn’t successful. “ Go try again. You get one more shot.”

Tim nodded, but he waited to see what I got. Bimbob Brock pried open my oyster, which was giving him a lot of resistance, and after a lot of tugging and digging, Brock won, which is better since one never wants to lose a battle of wits with an inanimate object.

Brock fanned open the shell and presented me with the most perfect pearl I had ever seen.
“Oh,” I gasped. I was at a loss for words.

Everyone had gathered around to see the gem. A couple of people offered me money to buy my pearl, but I just shook my head, held on to my treasure and admired it.

“What are you going to do with it?” Tim asked, getting a closer look at the gem.

“Mount it in a pendant. My reminder of a perfect day.” I held it up to examine it again. I wasn’t an expert, but I couldn’t find a flaw.

I stepped back and yelped. Somebody, probably Brock dropped a shell on the deck, which had cracked and the sharp edge sliced my foot. Blood had seeped out onto the deck, and a deckhand, not Brock had run to get the first aid kit. My foot was bandaged up, and Tim helped me to a comfortable seat. He didn’t dive again for his chance at another prize.

Once the boat got back to the marina, Tim insisted that we take a taxi to the hotel. I didn’t object because whatever alcohol I had had on the boat was starting to wear off, and my foot was starting to throb.

As I limped in, Tim asked for the concierge to send a doctor, I stopped by the bar to get a double anything to ease the pain.

“I can get to my room by myself. Thanks for all your help.” I limped along with my bag in one hand and a drink of something in the other. It had an umbrella, it looked pretty, and it had lots of something in it, which was the most important element of all.

Tim wouldn’t hear of it. “ Come on, let me carry something.”

Reluctantly I let him carry my bag, and we rode up to the seventh floor, me just sipping on my drink.

Tim opened the door; I limped in and flopped onto a chair.

“Thanks for everything.” I said, holding out my hand.

He took it, holding it a little too long. There were sparks, but he was married, and that wasn’t my scene.

Loneliness and alcohol are never a good mix. It makes one lose focus. Our lips came together, and whatever boundaries I had set came crashing down. I gave in and I became lost.

Some addictions are a lot harder to kick than others. I had been lonely, Tim was a bad fix.

Tim Burgess was a partner at one of the law offices downtown. He was controlling and mean tempered. I was the new toy, and Tim liked to keep his toys to himself. He had no idea how to play nice.

I knew he was married. I broke my own cardinal rule, never play in someone else’s sandbox, but he was an addiction to me. Why was I so desperate? I didn’t need him, but I wanted him. I had no self-control, and no self-esteem.

Tim told me how to dress, what to do, how to think.

We had ended up at the same fundraiser, he was with his wife, and I was with a guy that I worked with, not a date, but a friend. I could see the rage building in his eyes, as he texted me all night calling me a whore, and he said I looked like a prostitute in my dress.

The next day, he showed up at my apartment and cracked me across the face, the first time anyone ever laid a hand on me.

I didn’t like the person I had become. I had been independent once. I didn’t need Tim Burgess.

An opportunity came up where someone needed to spend a long period of time overseeing a project at one of our plants in Barbados. I seized the opportunity and took the job.

I made arrangements to move to Barbados on the Q.T. I rented out my condo, put my stuff into storage and rented a house in St Michaels Parish.

Once I made the move there, I decided to hire a driver, because I was terrified of trying to drive on the wrong side of the road. I had tried, but the roads are too narrow for my taste. Somehow I managed to hire Bimbob Brock. I might as well have some eye candy to pass the day with, and as I got to know him, he wasn’t as dumb as he made himself out to be. He became a loyal employee and friend. I didn’t need a man at this point, but I sure didn’t mind the view.

The last thing I did, was send Tim an email to end our affair. He sent one back spewing venom and predictions of my demise if I didn’t come back to him. Barbados was far enough away. I was safe. Or so I thought.

I had been out with some friends to one my favorite restaurant, The Cliff. Between the excellent food, wine and spectacular view of the ocean, I returned home in great spirits. Brock, as always drove me home.

Imagine my surprise when I walked in and found Tim in my house, sitting on my sofa.
“Bitch,” he snarled. “Did you really think you could just leave? You owe me.”

He spied the pearl that hung around my neck. “That should have been mine.” He went to grab it, but I jumped out of the way.

“Get out, leave me alone. I don’t owe you squat.” I backed away slowly, but Tim stood between the door and me.

“The only way you’re getting out is in a body bag. I’m going to kill you, you bitch.”
I started hurling everything that I could grab at him, but everything bounced right off of him. I took a chance and darted for the door, but he caught me and pressed me up against the wall with his hands around my neck and he started to squeeze.

I was wheezing and choking trying to fight him off, but everything was going so dark. Then the pressure and pain was gone. Was I in heaven? Hell?

No, just my living room with Bimbob Brock standing over Tim with a bookend in his hand. There was a little bit of blood on the edge, but not a mess.

“Oh shit, we killed him,” I moaned. “ What the hell are we going to do?”

Brock leaned down and put his ear against Tim’s face.

“Don’t worry Miss Allie, he’s not dead.” Brock said, looking back up at me.

“ Miss Allie, he’s going to keep coming back. You stay here. I’ll take care of this.”

“No Brock, he’s my problem. I’ll solve this.” I held my hand up to let him know that this was on me.

“Miss Allie, I know what to do.”

“Fine, then let’s do this together.” I started to grab Tim’s feet.

Brock picked Tim up and hauled him into the car. He found some rope and tied Tim up, also shoving a gag in his mouth. We didn’t want to fight with him when he woke up.

Brock had a boat out at a small private marina. We hauled Tim into it, and Brock set a course way out past the reefs.

It was silent on the boat, neither of us saying anything. I heard Tim’s struggling. He was awake.

“You know that sharks can detect even the most minute trace of blood in the water,” Brock said. He pulled out a knife and cut Tim’s arms. Not deep, but enough to start a flow.

“There’s a lot of fish in this area, which attracts a far number of sharks, maybe other predators as well. Plus, you like diving for pearls, right? I got my face up and close to his. “You should have left me alone.”

Tim’s eyes grew wide, the seriousness of his situation becoming very apparent.

Brock removed Tim’s gag, and Tim started to scream.

“You bitch, you’ll never get away with this.”

Brock hit him and Tim staggered back semiconscious. We cut the rope and tossed him overboard like the garbage he was.

We watched him flounder in the ocean, and then we saw the fins. Tim screamed, the water churned, turned red, then nothing.

I touched my necklace, yanked it off my neck and threw it in after him. Now he could have the pearl because for me the price had been too high.

The sea was calm, and there was silence all around except for the slapping of the water against the boat.

I now saw where the Caribbean meets the Atlantic, where the violence underneath is kept in check by the calm above. Not the place to dive for pearls.


Fran MacKenzie is an American transplant who was born in Japan and grew up in Kyoto, in the deep south, and in upstate New York. She’s now settled in Ancaster with her son, husband and two dogs. Her other son decided to be nice to her. He moved out and created his own family, giving her the little girl she never had with her grand-daughter Morgan. Fran has won the title of National Fleet Manager eleven times for Chrysler Canada and been a master member for 15 years. Sounds dirty, doesn't it? Now, she has gone back to her first love: writing. On June 18, 2009, she gave a reading of "Diving For Pearls," at CJ’s Cafe.

Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.

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